Roger Phillips obituary

·5-min read

The artist, photographer and author Roger Phillips’ talents led him in many directions, not all of them predictable, and it is entirely consistent with his roaming, inquisitive spirit that he will be remembered by many as a learned and media-friendly mycologist, a David Attenborough of the mushroom, and as the guru of the foraging movement.

Roger, who has died aged 88, declared his interest in fungi with his book Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe (1981), revised 25 years later, and also published a US version, Mushrooms and Other Fungi of North America (1991). It appeared in a series of botanical identification guides Roger conceived, with the support of the book designer David Larkin, for Pan Macmillan, beginning with Wild Flowers of Britain (1977) and including Trees of Britain (1978), Wild Food (1983) and Herbs and Medicinal Plants (1987). Roses (1988), and further books on bulbs, shrubs, annuals, perennials and vegetables, were collaborations with the botanist and plantsman Martyn Rix, as were a later series of smaller guides on topics such as pot plants and culinary herbs.

The distinguishing feature of Roger’s more than 40 books was their clean, uncluttered look, his meticulous colour images set against a white background, like the specimens pressed in paper in the collections of Victorian naturalists. In a green-fingered nation the books were a brilliant publishing idea, and there can be few gardeners who do not own at least some of them.

Roger became a friend of my family in the late 1960s, when he was working as a food photographer, capturing, for magazines and partworks, glistening images of both natural produce and exquisitely presented meals. Prior to that he had worked in advertising, serving as art director at the Ogilvy & Mather agency on campaigns for Schweppes (“Schhh . . . you know who”) and the Egg Marketing Board (“Go to Work on an Egg”).

Commissioned by his friend the illustrator Alan Aldridge, he photographed the rock band Cream for the album Goodbye (1969), forming a friendship with the bassist Jack Bruce that led to Roger creating the images for Bruce’s albums Songs for a Tailor (1969) and Out of the Storm (1974).

Roger was born in Uxbridge, west London, the son of Philip Phillips, the treasurer of Hillingdon council, and Elsie (nee Williams), who served as a magistrate. He attended St Christopher’s, a progressive vegetarian boarding school in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, where a friend played him American records of Bix Beiderbecke, instilling a lifelong love of jazz. He became a regular at the London Jazz Club at 100 Oxford Street, hung out with the Humphrey Lyttelton band, and once carried the guitar case of the bluesman Big Bill Broonzy.

He did his national service with the RAF in Canada but resigned his commission on pacifist principles and returned to London, where he worked in a hospital and took a course at the Chelsea School of Art. “Roger was lively and gregarious,” remembers his contemporary Alan Gilchrist, “contributing regularly to theatrical events, and was the art editor of the school’s magazine Concetto.” A friend and fellow conspirator in cultural interventions was Brian Innes, whose band Roger booked for a school ball even before they became the Temperance Seven.

Roger was a natural to present TV programmes about nature, and showed how to slow-cook a ham in compost

Colourful – not to say wacky – and enthusiastic, Roger was a natural to present TV programmes about nature. The six-part BBC series The Quest for the Rose (1994) had him following the trail of one of his favourite flowers through both geography and time, while The 3,000 Mile Garden, originally a 1992 book based on letters between Roger and the American cookery writer and gardener Leslie Land, furnished a six-part series in 1995, in which Roger incidentally demonstrated how to slow-cook a ham in compost, in the garden of Eccleston Square, London (where he lived), which he managed and developed for more than 40 years. He championed all London garden squares, and was appointed MBE in 2007.

Gardens occupied much of Roger’s attention in the 1990s and 2000s. His knowledge of the world’s gardens, both famous and obscure, was displayed in A Photographic Garden History (1995), written with his partner Nicky Foy, and in the two volumes of The Botanical Garden (2002), another collaboration with Rix. He was consulted by the Prince of Wales about the mushrooms of Balmoral. But he was just as happy in less grand settings, regularly heading mushroom-collecting walks and other foraging expeditions. Building upon Wild Food, of which a revised edition appeared in 2014, he produced in 2020 The Worldwide Forager, a vade-mecum for the self-sufficient.

During the last decade Roger returned to painting, and to two subjects that had entranced him since childhood. The Final Story of the Nez Perce Indians recorded the Native American nation’s 1,600-mile journey to evade an army bent on seizing their ancestral lands and confining the Nez Perce to a reservation. The 235ft canvas was exhibited in Eccleston Square in 2015. Dark Age Arthur was a series of paintings based on the twelve great battles of King Arthur, as recorded by the historian Nennius. A performance piece based upon it was staged at the Cockpit Theatre, London, in 2017. Over the last two years he also worked on new editions of the books on vegetables, wild flowers and trees.

Roger is survived by Nicky and their daughters, Phoebe and Lyla; by Sam, his son from his marriage to Pammy Wray, which ended in divorce; and by his grandchildren, Eloise, Ebony, Emile, Ruby and Oscar.

• Roger Howard Phillips, photographer, artist and gardener, born 16 December 1932; died 15 November 2021

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